By the end of this week, Stockton will have formally declared for chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in what will go down as possibly the most infamous day in the 162 year history of the city. No matter your stance on the issue, bankruptcy is now a foregone conclusion. The real question now is how will Stockton use this opportunity to reshape the city.
At first read, you might not characterize bankruptcy as an opportunity, but, in the end,
Stockton, its residents and leaders, now have the opportunity to take a step back to really think about how we got into this mess and how can we make sure this never happens again.
While there are undoubtedly many factors that contributed to the city’s current state of affairs, Stockton’s sprawl-based economy is certainly one of the main culprits. Our unencumbered growth at the edges of the city created the illusion of wealth, leading us to think that we could exponentially annex farmland at the periphery and forever reap the benefits of more and more property and sales taxes. Today, we know that building our economy around sprawl was foolish, as sprawling subdivisions and vast shopping centers did nothing but redistribute revenue to other parts of the city. We weren’t making more money, we were just pushing what we had further and further out. Police, fire and city employees were forced to serve a growing city, and the tax revenue collected from these new developments did not come close to covering these added expenses, especially now that housing values have collapsed.
Moving forward, it is paramount that city leaders and residents understand that we cannot go back to this unsustainable pattern of growth. Instead, we need to focus on using the resources Stockton already has, revitalizing neighborhoods that already exist and building on land that is already within the city’s limits. As you know from reading other articles on the site, focusing on infill development is a much more efficient use of a city’s resources and provides a much higher return on investment than strip malls and subdivisions. We have suffered the consequences of a sprawl-based economy before, a return to this strategy should be unimaginable.
For some, Stockton’s bankruptcy filing will be the last straw, the final sign that it is time to get the heck out of Dodge. I don’t blame these people as Stocktonians have had to put up with a lot of negativity over these past 10 years: Soaring crime rates, scaled back city services, dubious titles from national publications. In fact, I know a handful of people who are deciding it’s time to call it quits and have already moved to other locations in the valley or to the bay area.
But for those of us who have not given up on Stockton, we have a chance to shape the course of the city for the better. Make no mistake; Stockton will bounce back, as the city’s long-term projections are still positive. Our population is still growing and the unemployment rate is trending in the right direction. Stockton has tremendous assets such as the port, the University of the Pacific, proximity to the Delta, the Bay Area and the mountains, not to mention great whether. The housing market will stabilize and grow, and people will start flowing to the city from the Bay Area once again to escape the high cost of living. If we implement the right development strategies, working with developers to come up with plans to manage growth in the right way, Stockton has the potential to be a great city. However, we can’t get there unless our leaders have the integrity to make the right decisions on growth, because it would be easy to slip back into old habits.
Stockton is facing its darkest hours, but by no means should this signal the demise of the city. Bankruptcy brought attention from all over the world, but now the cameras are gone, and we have a chance to turn Stockton into a success story from the ground up. The next time the city garners international attention, it will be for the way Stockton was able to use this opportunity to become a stronger community and a better city for everyone.